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How a Professor Upset Tunisian Politics With Help of Angry Youth

Jihen Laghmari and Michael Gunn

(Bloomberg) -- It took an austere law professor to channel the burning injustices of a generation disillusioned by the failures of the Arab Spring into an insurgent campaign that dealt a stinging rebuke to Tunisia’s political establishment.

After a buildup that scarcely registered with the media, at the ballot box 61-year-old Kais Saied saw off nearly two dozen rivals seeking to lead Tunisia, including several with top government credentials. If he wins a runoff with his closest opponent, the presidency of one of the Arab world’s rare democracies will be his.

Tunisians are in a “rebellious” mood, he said in a rare interview at his spartan office in the capital, Tunis, though they are acting with “civility, responsibility and a sense of discipline.” He talked of passionate debates on ways to renew political participation he saw in the nation’s streets and cafes during his campaign.

Deploying the deliberate sentences of his profession, Saied described himself as a conduit for a loose movement demanding an end to years of malaise. Among his ambitious plans for a presidency that guides rather than rules are constitutional changes devolving power locally.

When people are eating “dry bread, and the youth have become debris, is this a success for the government?” he said, dressed in his trademark navy blue suit. “I don‘t think so.”

Nor did many of the 3.46 million people who voted in what was only the North African nation’s second truly democratic presidential election. Their choice of Saied and another rather more flamboyant outsider for the runoff spoke of a deep dissatisfaction with the aftermath of the 2011 revolt that ousted veteran leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who died last week in exile.

Bickering between secular and Islamist parties and occasional militant attacks took their toll, and while Tunisia alone of the nations hit by uprisings eight years ago has sustained a democracy, it remains fragile. Recent economic reforms have started to pay off, according to the International Monetary Fund, but unemployment -- a key driver of the discontent -- remains above 15%.

Breaking Ground

It’s a situation that left Tunisia’s prime minister, defense minister and the deputy leader of the main religious party all by the wayside in the Sept. 15 vote. Saied placed first with 18.4% of ballots in the 24-candidate race, followed by Nabil Karoui, a media mogul jailed on corruption charges he denies.

Saied’s campaign was defiantly groundbreaking. Supporters in his office said the idea of his candidacy emerged in April when a group of mainly students gathered 13,000 signatures that persuaded him to run.

Funding, he said, was entirely via donations of no more than 8 dinars ($2.80) apiece. A trip to three of Tunisia’s 24 provinces cost just 37 dinars, and the team skipped meals to cut costs, he said. Facebook groups also spread his message widely.

He treated with scorn claims by a losing candidate that he benefited from covert Islamist support.

“I did not and will not belong to any party,” Saied said, refusing to enter into deals or alliances.

The presidential role is that of an elder statesman with sway in foreign and defense policy but checked by parliament. Legislative elections are on Oct. 6, with a date for the second presidential vote not yet announced.

Saied’s promise to empower the disenfranchised has echoes of the populist wave seen across the world.

Yet his focus on legal terminology and references to vintage thinkers such as Alexis de Tocqueville set him apart from shoot-from-the-hip disruptors like Donald Trump. His dry speaking style earned him the nickname “Robot Man,” a term the married father of three shrugs off with a smile.

Saied has “presented a different image of the man of power, one of an ascetic, who’s educated and close to the people,” said political analyst Boulbaba Salem.

In Saied’s office, there’s a couch, desk, computer and two Tunisian flags. On the wall behind him, his campaign poster shows the scales of justice atop a map of Tunisia and the slogan, “The people want...”

It’s a reference to the chant demanding Ben Ali’s downfall that then spread across the Arab world. Saied, who’s taught law in Tunis and the coastal city of Sousse and worked with the Arab League in the 1990s, says he supported the uprising.

Revolution Stalled

Now, he says, the revolution needs to be completed after it stalled on Jan. 14, 2011, the day Ben Ali fled.

“The people want employment, freedom and national dignity,” Saied said, pledging to give them the “legal mechanisms” to achieve it. He suggested expanding parliament to 265 members -- one for each local council -- and adding 11 others to represent expatriate Tunisians in order to deepen the sense of representation, especially outside major cities.

Not everyone is convinced. Political analyst Brahim Oueslati says Saied has produced “theories and hollow slogans that he won’t be able to implement.” Others accuse him of promoting contradictory positions during his little-covered campaign.

If Karoui is released from prison, the businessman who presents himself as a champion of the poor via his charity work could yet triumph, Oueslati said.

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, former President Moncef Marzouki and several of the lower-profile candidates have all backed Saied in the second round.

It’s not hard to find Saied’s supporters in greater Tunis. In a working-class district near the professor’s modest white-stone villa, a group of young men declared “we are all Kais Saied” when asked for directions.

Maysa Jouini Triki, a 22-year-old student at his law faculty in the Ariana district, praised her popular teacher.

“Kais Saied knows the young Tunisians well, what they think and what they want,” she said. “Other politicians know nothing about it.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jihen Laghmari in Tunis at jlaghmari@bloomberg.net;Michael Gunn in Tunis at mgunn14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alaa Shahine at asalha@bloomberg.net, ;Lin Noueihed at lnoueihed@bloomberg.net, Mark Williams, Michael Gunn

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